Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Radetzky March, Part Two: a lovely secret in a ruinous castle

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the themes and motifs in Part Two develop those listed in Part One. I love Roth’s style so I’ll make liberal use of quotes again (from the translation by Joachim Neugroschel) in looking at three new characters in this section.

Count Wojciech Chojnicki: “one of the richest Polish landowners in the area” (where Carl Joseph Trotta was transferred, on the Russian/Austrian-Hungarian border). His role appears to be something like a Cassandra figure, although not everyone disbelieves him. His warnings resonate with Carl Joseph and his father although they don’t completely understand him:

For years now, he [Count Chojnicki] had been a deputy to the Imperial Council, routinely reelected by his district, beating all other candidates with the help of money, violence, and surprise attacks; a minion of the government, he despised the parliamentary body to which he belonged. He had never given a speech and never heckled. Impious, derisive, fearless, and without qualms, Chojnicki used to say that the Kaiser was mindless and senile, the government a gang of nincompoops, the Imperial Council a gathering of gullible and grandiloquent idiots, and the national authorities venal, cowardly, and lazy.

“This empire is doomed. The instant the Kaiser shuts his eyes, we’ll crumble into a hundred pieces.”

Even though the Trotta’s feel “the dark weight of his prophecies”, they are unable to do anything about it. Befuddlement about what they could do fits in with the feeling of inertia, the sense that nothing can change what is coming. The Trotta grandfather, the “Hero of Solferino” demonstrates how one man can impact history. To some extent, so does Carl Joseph in a conflict on the border, where he gives the orders to fire during battle. The battle occurs not between warring armies but between the army and striking workers. Carl Joseph’s father, a slave to his routine, fails to recognize dissent in his district. He doesn’t even know the real name of his family servant. Ironically, Chojnicki proves to be more of a father figure to Carl Joseph than either his real father or the emperor in his role of protector of the grandson of the “Hero of Solferino”.

Valerie von Taussig: the disjointment of time runs through the novel, where characters lose their sense of place and experience an uncertainty in time. One theme overrides this displacement, though: the unrelenting march of time toward a given fate. Frau von Taussig, a widow that remains single after her husband's death, provides a good example of the toll of time in human terms.

But old age was approaching with cruel, hushed steps and sometimes in crafty disguises. She counted the days slipping past her and, every morning, the fine wrinkles, delicate webs that old age had spun at night around her innocently sleeping eyes. Yet her heart was that of a sixteen-year-old girl. Blessed with constant youth, it dwelled in the middle of the aging body, a lovely secret in a ruinous castle.

She temporarily plays an important role in her young lovers’ eyes, which feeds her self-worth. She accurately assesses Carl Joseph as someone that has “experienced sad things, but he hasn’t grown any wiser.” She has experienced sad things and grown wiser but is unable to change her course from its trajectory, due in part to her advanced age.

Emperor Franz Joseph (the Kaiser): Chapter 15 provides a delightful view from the emperor’s vantage point: “He saw the sun going down on his empire, but he said nothing. He knew he would die before it set.” Roth paints an emperor that knows more than those around him thinks, yet he says little or nothing to correct them. When spending the night at a castle while visiting the troops on the eastern border, he performs little acts of defiance such as getting out of bed and opening the window. Yet he’s scared he will be caught out of bed, giving rise to his feeling of helplessness that come from many sources:

The night was blue and round and vast and full of stars. The Kaiser stood at the window, thin and old in a white nightshirt, and felt very tiny in the face of the immense night. The least of his soldiers, who could patrol in front of the tents, was more powerful than he. The least of his soldiers! And he was the Supreme Commander in Chief! Every soldier, swearing by God the Almighty, pledged his allegiance to Kaiser Franz Joseph I. He was a majesty by the grace of God, and he believed in God the Almighty, who hid behind the gold-starred blue of the heavens, the Almighty—inconceivable! It was His stars that shone up there in the sky, and it was His sky that arched over the earth, and He had allocated a portion of the earth, namely the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, to Franz Joseph I. And Franz Joseph I was a thin old man, standing at the open window and fearing that his guards might surprise him at any moment.

The distance between the emperor and his subjects has been seen and felt from the citizens’ point of view, where the Kaiser’s omnipresent portraits overlook them but cannot respond. Roth shows the distance occurs in the other direction, too, as Franz Joseph becomes something akin to a painting on a wall:

Sometimes he felt he was actually floating away from people and from the earth. They all kept shrinking the longer he gazed at them, and their words reached his ears as if from a remote distance and fell away, indifferent clangs. And if someone met with some disaster, the Kaiser saw that they went to great lengths to inform him gingerly. Ah, they didn’t realize he could endure anything! The great sorrows were already at home in his soul, and the new sorrows merely joined the old ones, like long-awaited brothers. He no longer got annoyed so dreadfully. He no longer rejoiced so intensely. He no longer suffered so painfully.

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